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The comment made by the exemplary Clerk of Oxenford 
upon those ribald tales of the Miller and the Reeve, is 
eloquent silence. Out of the fund of his 'moral vertu' he 
might, of course, have drawn a sharp rebuke or at least a 
grave remonstrance, 'full of hy sentence'; but unless he 
were at that time studying ' aboute som sophyme,' he con- 
tented himself with silent meditation upon our old sins, so 
light-heartedly exploited for the entertainment of those 
whose road led to the shrine of the martyred saint. He 
knew that often silence is golden and words but sounding 
brass. As clearly appears in that conversation with Harry 
Bailey which precedes the tale of Griselda, he himself pos- 
sessed much of that gracious forbearance, which he very 
nobly celebrated : 

' Hoste,' quod he, ' I am under your yerde 
Ye han of us, as now, the governance.' 

Indeed, the argument of silence as well as that contained 
in his own words, justifies us in saying that the Clerk of 
Oxenford, with all his zeal for learning and righteousness, 
was almost as far removed from the prig as he was from 
those gay blades whom the Miller and the Reeve have 

With ' hende Nicholas,' * in particular, Chaucer has very 
deliberately contrasted his Clerk of Oxenford. The aspira- 
tions of the latter were for twenty volumes of Aristotle, 
which he far preferred to 'robes riche, or fithele, or gay 

1 Canterbury Take, A, 3199 fl. 



sautrie ' ; the former had not 6nly a chamber ' fetisly 
y-dight ' but both the sautrie — with which and his ' niyrie 
throte' he often beguiled the hours — and 'bookes grete and 
smale,' not to speak of his astrolabe and his 'angrym stones' 
on the shelf at his bed's head. The points which this sweet 
clerk had in common with his grave fellow-collegian serve 
only to emphasize the contrast between them. For instance, 
Nicholas, though 

' Of deerne love he koude, and of solas, 
And thereto he was sleigh and f ul privee, ' 

was, ' lyk a mayden meke for to see/ — words almost iden- 
tical with those with which the Host characterizes the other 
clerk: 'Ye ryde as coy and stille as dooth a mayde.' To 
this parallelism between the two portraits may be added 
another, which raises a question that the following para- 
graphs attempt to answer. Of Nicholas we read : 

' And thus this sweete clerk his tyine spente 
After his freendes fyndyng and his rente ' ; 

of the Clerk of Oxenford : 

' But al that he mighie of his frendes hente 
On bokes and on lerninge he it spente.' > 

The similarity of the italicized passages is noteworthy. 

The lines in the General Prologue are usually interpreted 
as meaning that Chaucer's Clerk was a mendicant. Skeat 
says the lines contain ' an allusion to the common practice 
at this period, of poor scholars in the Universities, who 
wandered about the country begging, to raise money to 
support them in their studies.' A very recent edition of 
the Prologue repeats this in substance : ' Poor scholars 
frequently gained the means of education by asking alms.' l 

1 M. Bentinck Smith, Prologue and Knights Tale, Cambridge, 1908, p. 
125. — Mather goes as far as to say 'Such gifts had to be begged for, and 
poor scholars commonly so made their way through the Uniyersity' 

108 H. S. V. JONES 

Now Rashdall, the great authority on the universities of 
Europe, points out that such students were by no means so 
numerous as our annotators seem to imply. Although he 
admits that extremely poor scholars ' were granted licenses 
to beg by the Chancellor,' and that to help a scholar on a 
small scale 'by giving him something at the door, in return 
for a prayer or two was a recognized work of charity in the 
mediaeval world,' he concludes that 'after all, as we see 
from the University records, it was only a very small pro- 
portion of the students in a University . . . who belonged to 
the pauper or servitor class.' ' 

In support of this authoritative testimony is the evidence 
of Anstey's Munimcnta Academica. 2 I find there only one 
permit to beg. To be sure many poor scholars were doubt- 
less unlicensed beggars and, of course, the regular mendicant 
orders were established at Oxford. On the other hand, it 
is certain that Chaucer's clerk belongs to neither of these 
classes. He is a man of strict principles and regular life ; 
and Chaucer has taken pains to contrast him pointedly with 
a representative of the friars, whose controversies with the 
seculars, fomented and kept alive by Wycliffe, constitute 
a chapter of great interest in fourteenth-century church 
history. The Clerk wore a courtepy that was 'ful thredbar'; 
of the Frere it is said : 

' For he was not lyk a cloisterer, 
With a thredbare cope as is a poure scoler.' 

(The Prologue, etc., 1899; p. 14). Wyatt uses Skeat's note verbatim 
but neglects to employ quotation marks (Prologue and Squire's Tale, Uni- 
versity Tutorial Series, p. 72). Hinckley quotes from Mather an allusion 
to begging students in Germany (Notes on Chaucer, p. 23). Liddell goes as 
far as we can reasonably go : ' The reference is to the practice of mediaeval 
students who undertook to say masses for the souls of their patrons or 
their patrons' relatives in return for money given ' (Canterbury Tales, New 
York, N. Y., 1901 ; p. 147). 

1 Rashdall, Universities, Oxford, 1895, p. 657. 

1 Rolls Series, Vol. 50, Parts 1 and 2. 


The Clerk spoke not one word more than was necessary ; but 
in all the four orders there was none who had so much small 
talk — ' daliaunce and fair langage ' — as this wanton friar : 
and whereas the Clerk spoke in form, this wag of a friar 
indulged a pretty affectation to make his English sweet upon 
his tongue ; the Clerk preferred books to harps and fiddles 
but the Frere was much given to harping and singing, his 
roguish eyes twinkling the while like winter stars. Surely 
another obvious point of contrast is, that, whereas the Frere 
begged and lived high, — ' he was the beste beggere in his 
hous ' — the studious Clerk took thankfully and expended on 
books and learning whatsoever his friends unasked freely 
gave him. 

This interpretation is borne out both by Chaucer's lan- 
guage and by all that we know of Oxford life in the four- 
teenth century. The passage quoted from the Prologue 
means only that whatsoever the Clerk might receive from 
his friends he spent on books and learning, praying earnestly 
afterward for the souls of his benefactors. The word hente, 
which is used frequently and somewhat vaguely in Middle 
English, is sometimes, but not always, as strong as the word 
seize. 1 Indeed, in the very passage under consideration Skeat 
glosses it, ' acquire, get ' ; and this meaning is unquestion- 
ably the correct one, for the character of the Clerk would 
make strongly against any other interpretation. It is not 
even necessary to assume that he petitioned his friends for 
assistance, although it is clear that this understanding of the 
passage will not interfere at all with the present argument. 
At all events, it is certain that there is nothing in Chaucer's 
language to justify the conclusion that this reticent young 

'See the examples cited in the N. E. D., definition 5; for instance, 
Mirour Salvaeioun, 'Of some man . . . the Baptisme of watere he hent.' 
The line in Chancer certainly does not mean, all that he could get by 
hook or by crook. 

110 H. 8. V. JONES 

student, any more than ' hende Nicholas,' found it necessary 
to beg from door to door. 

There were, indeed, many other ways in which the im- 
pecunious youth of the fourteenth century might be helped 
to a university education. We may mention, for instance, 
the ' chests,' described entertainingly by Anstey in his Intro- 
duction to the Munimenta. These were, in a sense, the 
Oxford scholarships ' of the fourteenth century. To each of 
them was attached the name of the benefactor, the sum given 
by him, and the object of the foundation. The University, 
for its part, recompensed this charity by annual masses and 
celebrations and by enjoining upon every beneficiary to recite 
sixty Pater Nosters or Ave Marias for the repose of the 
benefactor's soul ; that is, to pray for the souls of those who 
gave them ' wherewith to scoleye.' One of the 'chests' noted 
in the Munimenta was bequeathed to the University by Wil- 
liam de Seltone, Canon of Wills, when Chaucer was about 
twenty years old. It contained one hundred marks, and the 
stipulation was made that ' all persons borrowing from this 
chest shall be bound to say five times Pater Noster and Ave 
Maria for the souls of the founder and of all the faithful 
departed.' 2 

A further occasion for the prayerful gratitude of poor 
scholars appears in that custom according to which 'every 
year on the day of St. Scholastica the Townsmen shall cause 
mass to be said at St. Mary's church in Oxford at which 
mass the Mayor and the Bailiffs and sixty of the more sub- 
stantial citizens shall be bound to be present and offer at the 
high altar each one penny ;, and of this sum forty pence shall, 
immediately after the conclusion of the said mass, be dis- 
tributed by the Proctors among the poor scholars, and the 
remainder shall be given the incumbent of the said church.' 3 

1 The money was, however, only lent, security being required. 
'Anstey, i, p. 213. 'Anstey, i, pp. 1^4f. 


This edict is dated in the Munimemta 1367 ; so that there was 
ample opportunity for the Clerk to come within its benefits 
before he went to logic and before he found himself one of 
that immortal company who by a happy chance met together 
in the cheerful tavern of Harry Bailey. It may be in point 
here to mention, too, that generous custom of 'determining 
for others ' by which the poorer students, without resorting 
to beggary, were helped by their richer fellows to meet the 
expenses of graduation. 1 

After all, however, we need neither the ' chests ' nor St. 
Scholastica's day to explain the lines which we have quoted 
from the Prologue. Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford may most 
reasonably be assigned to the class of students described by 
Rashdall in the following words : — ' The vast majority of 
scholars were of a social position intermediate between the 
highest and the very lowest — sons of knights and yeomen, 
merchants, tradesmen or thrifty artisans, nephews of success- 
ful ecclesiastics, or promising lads who had attracted the 
notice of a neighboring Abbot or Archdeacon. So habitual 
was this kind of patronage that a large proportion of Univer- 
sity students must have been supported by persons other 
than their parents, whether related to them or not.' 2 Is it 
not most reasonable to assume that the Clerk with his quiet, 
earnest ways and zeal for study was very likely to enjoy 
such patronage ? No other of Chaucer's pilgrims has come 
into more favor than he has enjoyed, and there have been 
these who held him in such esteem that they fondly sought 
to identify him with the poet himself. Certainly, it is more 
seemly for us to assign him a patron than to send him beg- 
ging from door to door ; especially when Chaucer's language 
gives us no support for such a theory. 

Is it likely, either, that a poor student who went a-begging 

1 Bashdall, n, pp. 444 fi. * Rashdall, n, p. 657. 

112 H. S. V. JONES 

should have expended entirely on books and learning money 
obtained in this way ? Eashdall says that the Clerk's aspira- 
tions for an Aristotelian library represent about the maximum 
that an ordinary student would expect in the matter of 
books. 1 This opinion is borne out by an examination of those 
interesting inventories of the goods of deceased students, 
which are published in the Munimenta. These, to be sure, 
fall within the century after that in which Chaucer lived ; 
but we may be sure that books were no cheaper in the four- 
teenth century than they were in the fifteenth. Even then, 
though we find that Master T. Cooper of Brasenose Hall had 
a book of homelies, two volumes of Boethius, a geometry, 
and let us hope a much prized copy of the Be Remedio 
Amoris, 2 and that Master Ralph Dreff of Broadgate Hall 
had, for those old days, a snug little library, 3 yet these were 
not poor scholars. The really indigent student was not likely 
to buy many books. 


It is not necessary to suppose that Chaucer thought of 
assigning his Clerk to any particular Oxford college ; and 
yet one is tempted to associate him with Merton. This 
illustrious foundation would have been a congenial home 
for our young student. Merton, to be sure, like the other 
colleges had its troubles in these unsettled times. Brod- 
rick, its historian, quotes Anthony "Wood to the effect that 
six years before Chaucer was born it 'refused to admit 
Northern scholars and that in 1349 several of its members 
took a very active part in a riot on behalf of Wylliott, a 
Southerner, driving out the Northern Proctor, and forcibly 
procuring the election of Wylliott to the Chancellorship'; 
there is, too, an entry for 1354-5 reading 'in sagittas emptas 

1 RashdaIl 1 n, p. 668. ! Anstey, n, p. 515. 

' Anstey, u, p. 582. 


el emendas pro defensione corporis Custodis,' and for 1399- 
1400 an item 'pro armigero custodis.' As late as 1395 
there was 'another serious tumult between North and South.' 
On the whole, however, as Brodrick tells us, Merton was 
especially distinguished as an ' example of industry and good 
order.' To quote him further : ' It is stated that after the 
sanguinary tumult on the Feast of St. Scholastica in 1354 
when there was a general rustication of students to avoid 
bloodshed those of Merton were specially excepted. To 
young men of gentle nature and studious habits, such a home 
in such a place must indeed have offered a welcome haven of 
rest, however little it may have satisfied modern requirements 
of amusement, or even of comfort.' ' And surely the Clerk of 
Oxenford was a young man ' of gentle nature and studious 

There is, moreover, what Brodrick calls 'a leading feature 
of the foundation ' at Merton, to which Chaucer may be sup- 
posed to allude in his description of the Clerk. The line is, 
'Ne was so worldly for to have office'; and the 'leading 
feature ' is that order of Merton scholars, founded by John 
Wylliott about 1380, which consisted of students who were 
at the same time 'college officers, and engaged in active 
business.' 2 Of course, the line which I have quoted may 
have only a general significance ; but it is worth nothiug that 
it fits in very well with the other suggestions that I make. 

Nor should it be forgotten that one of Chaucer's friends 
was a distinguished student and teacher at Merton. This was 
Ralph Strode, who was born ten years later than Chaucer and 
died in the same year as he. His name is linked, as everyone 
knows, with that of the moral Gower in the dedication of 
the Troilus and Cressida. The philosophical Strode was a 

1 Brodrick, Memorials of Merton College, Oxford Historical Society, iv, p. 19. 

2 Brodrick, p. 20. 


114 H. S. V. JONES 

fellow at Merton before 1360. In a discussion which accord- 
ing to Strode's biographer was carried on in an ' unusually 
friendly and courteous manner, 1 he opposed Wycliffe's doc- 
trine of predestination, Wycliffe replying with his Bespon- 
siones ad Rodolphum Strodum. We may be sure that those 
subjects which were of very lively interest at fourteenth- 
century Oxford and over which Strode, Wycliffe, and many 
others contended — free agency versus predestination, nomi- 
nalism versus realism — were of more than passing interest to 
Chaucer. His ironical comment upon the attempt of the 
dialecticians to define the grace of God and the responsibility 
of man is to be found in the dedication of that pitiful tale of 
Cressid, in which no man can untangle the threads of fate 
from those of human weakness. In a very real sense, then, 
Chaucer was in the controversy, although not of it; and, 
whether or no the great reformer is one and the same with 
the John Wycliffe of the Merton register, 2 the thoughts of 
the poet certainly turned to Merton and his distinguished 
friend there, 3 when he thought of those questions which are 
not wholly questions of the schools, and the human values of 
which he was prone to consider. And if we are to believe 

1 D. N. B. — I may seem to be too much at ease with Chaucer's some- 
what shadowy philosopher. I hold to Gollancz's poet-philosopher as 
against J. T. T. Brown's poet and philosopher. Nor do I think Professor 
Carleton's Brown's "important confirmation of Mr. Brown's belief" in 
Bale's "Index" confirms it at all. The "Index" appears frequently to 
repeat a name in passing from one source to another, here from Nicholas 
Brigham to the Merton Catalogue. Compare among many the name of 
Chaucer, four times registered. It is customary for Bale to indicate a new 
writer by a capital black-letter ; the "Index" gives no such indication of 
a second Badulphus. — See Brown, Note on the Question of Strode's Author- 
ship of The Pearl, Publ. Mod. Lang. Assoc., 1904, pp. 146 ff. 

*D. N. B., Wycliffe. 

* I may mention here the conjecture of Mr. Norman Moore that Gaddes- 
den, another Merton man, is the original of the ' Doctour of Phisik.' 
Cf. D. N. B., Gaddesden. 


an interesting, although of course not conclusive note 1 in 
one of the Astrolabe manuscripts, it was to Merton and 
Strode that Chaucer entrusted his 'lyte Lewis,' to whom the 
Treatise is so tenderly dedicated. 2 

H. S. V. Jones. 

1 The colophon at the end of pt. II, Paragraph 40, reads : — Explicit 
tractatus de conclusionibus Astrolabi compilatus per Galfridum Chancer 
ad Filium suum Lodewicum Scholareni tunc temporis Oxonie ac sub tutela 
illius no'oillissimi philosophi Magistri N. Strode. Ms. Dd. 3, 53 (part2) 
in the Cambridge University Library. The colophon is written 'in a 
later hand' (Skeat's ed. E. E. T. S., First Series, xxix, pp. 51 and 87). 
— Qollancz (J). N. B., Strode), while rejecting the interpretation here 
mentioned, writes, 'although the initial before Strode' s name is usually 
read " N," it might stand for " R." ' 

* The earlier biographers, as is well known, concluded that Chaucer was 
a University man. Speght assigns him to Canterbury or Merton College, 
'with John Wickelife, whose opinions in religion he much affected.' See 
Hammond, Bibliographical Manual, p. 21.